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Spotlight Report

  Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Morrissey told public relations specialists that mistakes were made during the sexual abuse scandal. (Globe Staff Photo / Jonathan Wiggs)

Law spokeswoman describes 'nightmare'

Morrissey says she was often kept in the dark about scandal

By Jenn Abelson, Globe Staff Correspondent, 3/21/2003

Protesters lined Commonwealth Avenue, chanting and honking their horns as a confused Donna Morrissey, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Boston, passed by them last April. Moments later, she'd find out two important things.

First, unbeknownst to her, Cardinal Bernard Law was in Rome. Second, she was scheduled to talk about Law's declaration that he would not resign, at a news conference that was interrupted by an unwieldy crowd of protesters.

''I absolutely started losing it,'' Morrissey said last night in a speech on crisis communication to the Boston chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

In a relatively candid address for a spokeswoman who is better known for what she doesn't say than for what she says, Morrissey described the past 15 months since the church crisis erupted as overwhelming and frustrating.

''There was no dress rehearsal,'' said Morrissey, who was recruited in 2000 by Bishop William Murphy. ''You just had to use your instincts as best you could, and strive to be honest, compassionate, and just stick to the message: We had to protect the children.''

Morrissey, the only lay woman, in the cardinal's cabinet, declined to say how often Law took her advice, except to say, ''The advice I offered was heard.''

She admitted, however, that the clergy sexual abuse scandal that resulted in Law's resignation last December was a ''public relations nightmare.'' She blamed it mainly on the constraints imposed on her - the information that was not shared with her and the ongoing litigation that limited the details she could release.

And she recalled meetings in which church officials debated over whether to use the word ''mistake'' as opposed to ''wrong'' in describing the church's actions.

Morrissey said she did not want to avoid confrontation, but admitted she often ducked out the back door with the cardinal to avoid protesters, saying, ''I didn't want to escalate the situation.''

During Morrissey's half-hour speech at ML Strategies in Boston, she conceded that mistakes were made in handling the crisis. But at first, she said, no one in the church foresaw its dimensions.

Morrissey said she was only able to admit that wrongdoing had occurred after thousands of documents were released under court order, detailing the abuse and the church's in-depth knowledge of it.

Before that, she said, ''I wasn't aware or privy to the information or the enormity of the problem.''

Against an onslaught of media interest, Morrissey said, she had only an administrative assistant and herself to field up to 300 calls a day, and her cellphone bills averaged $1,000 a month. She was forced to take a reactive stance, she said.

''It's been very challenging. There's times when I go home and ... I cry and sob,'' Morrissey told the crowd, which included her father, William Morrissey.

Since she's become the face of the archdiocese, Morrissey said she's had concerns about her security, and felt, at times, that her privacy has been invaded. She said she has fielded calls from reporters at 3 a.m., but described most of the local news media as ''absolutely professional and wonderful to deal with.''

Morrissey touched on some of the tenets that have helped her get through these challenging times, including, ''Don't sweat the small stuff,'' ''Don't hold grudges,'' and ''Reporters are people, too.''

She agreed with one audience member's view that the church needs to do more to reach out to parishioners who've been upset by this crisis to work together toward rebuilding the church.

''It's high time we step up to the plate and say, `OK, this has happened, we're sorry - and now we want to be involved so that it doesn't happen again,'' Morrissey said.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 3/21/2003.
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